There was an interesting article in the New York Times a few weeks ago, ‘Books That Are Never Done Being Written’ by Nicolas Carr in which he claims to have ‘got a glimpse into the future of books’. Carr had published a series of old essays as an e-book via Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing service, but decided to alter the text post-publication. As Carr writes,

I made the edits on my computer and sent the revised file back to Amazon. The company quickly swapped out the old version for the new one. I felt a little guilty about changing a book after it had been published, knowing that different readers would see different versions of what appeared to be the same edition. But I also knew that the readers would be oblivious to the alterations.

The implications of this ability to alter the text of already published books – in the (seemingly) same edition and utterly undetectable – are interesting. As Carr writes, ‘the endless malleability of digital writing promises to overturn a whole lot of our assumptions about publishing,’ in particular, our idea of a work as a complete, finalised object: ‘the words of books go from being stamped permanently on sheets of paper to being rendered temporarily on flickering screens.’

There are, indeed, many advantages of this, as Carr outlines – writers can correct errors and update facts, particularly useful in guidebooks, ‘the instructions in manuals will always be accurate. Reference books need never go out of date.’ But then, of course, the slippery slope begins:

Even literary authors will be tempted to keep their works fresh. Historians and biographers will be able to revise their narratives to account for recent events or newly discovered documents. Polemicists will be able to bolster their arguments with new evidence. Novelists will be able to scrub away the little anachronisms that can make even a recently published story feel dated.

The piece is indeed fascinating – if not alarming with its Orwellian implications – until you realise that this ability is open to us with online publishing already. On this blog for example, I can go back and alter anything in any of my posts and no-one would be the wiser. It is instant, seamless and, from the outside at least, utterly undetectable. But of course, I wouldn’t because then the comments don’t make sense, or people’s responses to it become redundant. Sure, I might change the odd typo if noticed after I’ve hit ‘Publish’ in the back end of the site, but to drastically alter the text, its examples, its arguments, would be mad. (I’d be interested to hear from other bloggers if they have their own rules on altering text once published.)

The internet, like some sort of endlessly mirrored Panopticon, tends to self-regulate. It is the watchful audience, or at least our belief in one, that keeps us from altering our words. If one thing is clear from any sort of writing online – you only have to look at those who attempt to delete a controversial tweet and are then confronted with hundreds of screenshots of it – is that the internet doesn’t forget.

Wikipedia is the obvious example here, where you can view a history of the revisions for each Wikipedia post, and this might be a good solution to the problem Carr has highlighted that publishers of e-books should consider instituting. But, again, who would want to endlessly refresh and track changes to a novel that you believe to be completed?

Taken to its logical conclusion, if it became the norm for authors to endlessly revise their novels with no announcement in the (apparently) same edition, reviewing would become redundant. Why spend all your time reading a novel and carefully crafting an analysis when the text could change at any time? For authors desperate to have their works reviewed, the whole thing seems counter-intuitive.

As Carr writes, what is lost in this sort of malleability, ‘is the sense of a book as a finished and complete object, a self-contained work of art.’ As many have been quick to point out in the comments, the sense of a work as finished and complete is incorrect – books are published in hundreds of new, revised editions, with epilogues and afterwards and introductions and addendums. But I think the essence of Carr’s point remains.

‘Typographical fixity’… helped to protect original documents from corruption, providing a more solid foundation for the writing of history. It established a reliable record of knowledge, aiding the spread of science. It accelerated the standardization of everything from language to law.

The importance of books, essays, commentary – whatever their topic or form – is in their status as time capsules. They show us how far we’ve developed, how our thinking has changed and attitudes evolved. To alter texts to suit the current moment is to find ourselves trapped in the perpetual present. Though I don’t think this will be, as Carr claims, the ‘future of books,’ it’s an interesting reminder of the dangers of covert malleability for online and e-book publishing.